Preparing Undeployables for the Afghan Front
Echoes of Echo
The troubling state of affairs in Echo Platoon may only have been the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Army holdover units. Evidence suggests that soldiers being held on other bases in the United States for AWOL and desertion face similar apathy or intentional neglect--and that they, too, are often left with the choice between living in legal limbo or agreeing to be sent to a war zone.
Scott Wildman, a former Army Specialist, went AWOL in 2007 when he was unable to receive adequate help for severe PTSD sustained after a fifteen-month deployment to Iraq. In February 2009, he finally turned himself in at Fort Lewis in Washington State, only to find himself lost in a labyrinthine bureaucracy. For the first four months, he was not allowed to leave a confined area and was forbidden even to walk around by himself.
Here's how he describes his experience: "I was flipping out. My wife had left me while I was over there. I hadn't seen my kids in a couple years. I came home and tried to get help. At Fort Lewis, they do not care about you. I had been diagnosed by civilian and military doctors with severe depression, PTSD and severe anxiety. When you are at the unit, they make fun of you. They crack PTSD jokes. They all have it too, but they're too cool."
During the eight months he has been held at Fort Lewis, Wildman claims he has suffered verbal abuse and substandard mental healthcare. "The command treated me like dirt. My commander ignored me for the first couple months until my roommate jumped me. They'll make sure you're in the room and call you a 'bunch of PTSD pussies.' "
Four weeks ago, Wildman was informed that he would be court-martialed, but was not given a trial date. Feeling he had no other choice, he went AWOL again and remains so today.
"I'd been going to see some military counselors, but we weren't making progress on the real problem.... They give us classes on calm and peacefulness, but they are right near the shooting ranges. There's gunfire and explosions all around, people being screamed at all the time because it's infantry. It's not a good place for someone with [mental health] issues."
At one point, despite a confidentiality protocol that should have prevented it, Wildman's commanders went through his medical evaluations and found out that he had been involved in the accidental killing of two little girls in Iraq. They proceeded to needle him by threatening to write him up for war crimes.
Explaining why he once again went AWOL, Wildman says, "I didn't know what was going to happen next. I had to remove myself from that situation."
"Examples of how the military is treating soldiers, like the case of Wildman, are common," comments Kathleen Gilberd, co-chair of the MLTF. She also points out that the Army, stretched thin by years of multiple deployments to two war zones, has taken to downplaying potentially severe medical conditions to keep soldiers eligible for service overseas. It is commonplace, she reports, for formerly AWOL soldiers to be "bribed" with offers of having all charges, or potential charges, dropped, as long as they accept deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.
"A lot of folks who are under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed are being deployed second and third times," she adds. "Barrier mechanisms that should prevent this from happening are being routinely ignored.... If someone is on psychotropic medication or is diagnosed with a fresh psychiatric condition, there should be a ninety-day observation period and delay, under DoD [Department of Defense] policy."
Remarkably, that sometimes-ignored ninety-day hold period for military personnel on psychotropic medications does not always apply to soldiers who are diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI) of a sort commonly caused by roadside bombs. According to an Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center analysis, reported in the Denver Post in August 2008, more than "43,000 service members--two-thirds of them in the Army or Army Reserve--were classified as nondeployable for medical reasons three months before they deployed" to Iraq. The process, if anything, only seems to be accelerating when it comes to Afghanistan.